Del Kennedy hunts world for carving lessons

His hobby takes him to Austria, where he learns from master carvers.

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Del Kennedy works on the bust of a Bavarian man while at the famed Master Carving School in Elbigenalp, Austria. Kennedy spend three weeks this fall at the school learning from master carvers.

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Though Kennedy wouldn't finish his carving of the Poacher until two weeks after returning home, he still had the chance to learn coloring and staining techniques on another Poacher carving, seen here.

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Del Kennedy spent three weeks at the master Carving School in Elbigenalp, Austria.

WALLA WALLA -- When Del Kennedy arrived in Munich, Germany, in late September of 2009, it was not to take part in what the city touts as the world's largest Oktoberfest.

The 79-year-old had already experienced the city's famed beer and brautworst festival twice before when he was younger; this time he was just passing through on his way to Austria.

"The main thing in the Octoberfest is to get drunk, and I wasn't interested," he said.

What did interest him lay about 100 miles to the south in a village of 850 people nestled in a valley surrounded by the Alps.

Not beer. Not brauts. It wasn't even about the majestic mountain scenery surrounding the village of Elbingenalp.

What brought him was his love of wood.

"Austrian pine. It's not a pitchy pine. It grows at timberline ... so the trees don't get really big and the grain is tight. Beautiful wood," Kennedy noted.

The retiree who ran an industrial chemical company in Walla Walla is not a conifer-phile or tree-hugger or botanist. The love that inspired Kennedy to carve his way across 5,268 miles of land and sea was all about taking a block of dead wood and transforming it into a semblance of the living.

"I call him the Hunter, but they called him a Poacher because he doesn't have a hunting dog," Kennedy said about a carving he recently created at the Master Carving School at Elbigenalp, where he completed a three-week program.

"I should have started 30 years ago or 40, and then I would have had more time. But right now I am 76 and I have slowed down considerably," he said, perhaps lamenting or even bragging over what he has been able to whittle out of the remaining rings of his life.

In his 60s, sometime around his retirement, Kennedy took a trip to Switzerland to visit cousins. Perhaps it was genetic, but after seeing his cousin's wood works, mostly in ethnics masks that the locals use to drive away winter, Kennedy returned to Walla Walla with a strong desire to carve his own creations.

"So I started gathering up sticks to carve and followed the same pattern he (his cousin) had and thought this was nice," he said, and added, "When I look back at my beginning stuff why it looks pretty rough."

More than a decade later and now laden with more than 150 carving tools -- though he concedes to doing the vast majority of his work with only four carving knives -- Kennedy has progressed from carving sticks with faces to modest sized recreations of people and animals.

Last year, he took best in class, best in division and second best of the entire collection of more than 600 entries at the Tri-Cities Wood Carvers Association annual show.

Still, Kennedy will tell you he has a lot to learn and little time left to do it. All the more reason to take a trip to learn from the master carvers in Elbigenalp.

Once through the chaos of Munich's Oktoberfest, Kennedy found he wasn't the only old oak at the carving school; most of students were in their 60s, with a few college students in their 20s working on their masters.

"I was probably one of the oldest ones there," he said.

Once there, it was time to chose a project. Kennedy wanted to push himself, but was intimidated when he went to the sample room where students pick a carving they will attempt to re-create.

"You look at several things and you say that is well over my head ... And I really looked over some of those things. And I looked at it and said I kind of would like to do something like this. So you take that project that was already done and that was your model, and you would go from there," Kennedy said.

Kennedy picked three projects, but the Poacher was his main project, one he would not finish until he returned home.

Student of the carving school were up at 6 a.m. and carving by 7:30 a.m. They would finish 11 hours later. And many, including Kennedy, would return after dinner to whittle away the evening hours on their projects.

"It was a foolish thing because I was dead tired ... I squeezed everything I could get out of it because I was paying for it and I wanted to get everything out of it I can," Kennedy said.

And when students were stuck, like Kennedy was when he first looked at the block of wood that would become the Poacher, instructors would help get their pupils going in the right direction, which is key to good carving, he said.

"My thoughts were where in the heck am going to start? Where is the starting point? But it didn't take long because the instructor said this is what you are going to do. And he marked it out with a pencil and said you need to get rid of this over burden. Dead wood. Everything you are not going to use," he said.

Kennedy learned that picking a starting point and direction is just as important as carving.

"He (the instructor) can look at that piece of wood and say we are going to start with the wood and carve this way. And I thought we would carve it the other way. And he said, 'No. We will start this way because this is the direction where most of your wood is going to be carved,'" Kennedy said.

While at the school, Kennedy completed two six-inch busts of Bavarian peasants, and old man and old woman.

But the Poacher would not be finished. There just wasn't enough time.

"I really hadn't done anything that big that got into the laminates," Kennedy said, noting that most larger carvings are two or more pieces of wood glued together in special directions so the legs and other weaker points can have vertical grains to ensure strength.

Then on the day when students learned about the techniques of painting wood carvings, the instructor brought out a finished Poacher that another student had created, but never had time to add color to it.

"It was the same one. A little bit different than mine, but it was the same figure. And she said, 'Here you go. Go ahead and paint it ... I was going to use this to demonstrate and you can demonstrate it for me.'"

So Kennedy got to paint the Poacher even though he wasn't finished. Before leaving the school, he saw the Poacher he had painted at the school's store with $750 on it, roughly half of what he paid for the three-week course.

About three weeks after returning home, Kennedy finished carving and painting his own Poacher, which he prefers to call the Hunter. But he doubts he could put a similar price tag on it.

"Now that I got the finished project I know that my project is worth $700 and $800, but people in the States that I run into they think that carvings are practically worthless, and that your work is only worth about 10 cents an hour," he said.

He plans to enter the Hunter in the next Tri-Cities show, along with an even larger Ibex (mountain goat) he is working on.

As for returning to Elbigenalp one day, it's not his age that keeps him away but his pocketbook.

"I would like to. Let's put it that way. Whether I can make it back again, I don't know. I sure would like to go back and learn some more," he said.

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